This is the second in a series of articles published occasionally to recount the history of the Civil War in Sandy Springs. To see the first article, visit www.reporternewspapers.net.
By Kimberly Brigance, Clarke Otten and Michael Hitt
Few people can claim to be eyewitnesses to events that change the course of history, but the residents of Sandy Springs that survived the Federal Army’s invasion could claim they saw the world change forever.
On a sweltering day in July 1864, the course of history was decided near the little Chattahoochee River crossing of Isom’s Ferry in Sandy Springs, Ga.
In July 1864, the presidential elections and the outcome of the Civil War were still undecided. Abraham Lincoln was running for re-election and had sworn to preserve the Union. His opponent, General George B. McClellan, promised if elected he would end the war by letting the Confederate States leave the Union in peace.
With thousands dead or wounded from the battlefields, few believed that Lincoln could be re-elected. The Confederacy could win the war at the ballot box by continuing to inflict high casualties and simply holding out until the election.
General William T. Sherman knew the northern press was using the staggering number of casualties inflicted on the Union Army earlier in the year at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain to play into the hands of McClellan. For political reasons, Sherman couldn’t risk another slaughter, but for Lincoln to win the election, Atlanta had to fall before the Nov. 8 election.
Sherman’s next objective was Atlanta, but that meant leading an entire army of men, equipment and supplies across the Chattahoochee River — not an easy task. Crossing a river defended by the enemy multiplied the enormity of the undertaking, but in early July 1864, General Sherman had no other choice. The Chattahoochee was the last natural barrier between his army and the city of Atlanta. He would have to cross. The question was, where?
A railroad bridge spanned the river near what is now Bolton Road, but that was held by the strong fortifications of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson. A full-on assault could eventually take the crossing, but butchering troops would surely swing the election in McClellan’s favor.
Roswell also had a bridge, but it was still in enemy hands and was much further north than Sherman massed armies. (A portion of Sherman’s army would later cross at Roswell and head to Decatur.) Federal scouts fanned out all along the shore of the river testing the Confederate strength and looking for a possible crossing somewhere upriver from Bolton.
In Sandy Springs, the Georgia Militia, supported by Confederate General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, was defending several ferry crossings and patrolling the river valley. Rifle pits and picket lines crisscrossed the ridges above the river.
The militia built gun emplacements on the high ground overlooking the Chattahoochee River at the two crossings closest to Sherman’s troops. A two-gun battery was above Power’s Ferry and a single gun was above the former site of Isom’s Ferry (near the present day site of the River Chase neighborhood Swim and Tennis Club). This ferry was operated by the Heard family after the war and so is also referred to as Heard’s Ferry.
The chosen weak point was at Isom’s Ferry near the mouths of Sope Creek on the Cobb county side and Heards Creek on the Sandy Springs side. On July 7, Sherman sent troops to the Sope Creek area with orders of minimal noise and no fires. They were to spread out in concealed positions along the ridges on the north side of the river.
On July 8, one detachment was sent a half mile upstream of Sope Creek to an ancient Native American fish dam, made of rock, which spanned the river in an area that now is between Columns Drive and Edgewater Drive. They were to cross the river and then head south toward the lone Confederate gun that guarded the crossing.
At 4 p.m. on July 8, Federal troops on ridges along the Sope Creek side of the river opened a barrage of rifle and cannon fire aimed at the Confederate position. At the same time, about a hundred soldiers rushed out of the woods toward the river and began to fire across the river at the water level.
From behind the ridge, 25 pontoon boats full of soldiers plunged into Sope Creek and began racing downstream and toward the opposite bank of the river. The Confederate gunners were only able to get off one shot before they were overtaken.
By 4:15 p.m., the attack was over. Oarsmen would continue to ferry troops across the river and by dusk Federal engineers had two pontoon bridges in place shuttling more men and equipment into Sandy Springs. By nightfall, the Federal army held three hill tops — one in the present day River Chase neighborhood, one at the hilltop home of the Heard family (the present location of Heard Cemetery on Heards Drive) and one on the high ground that is now the end of Edgewater Drive.
The defenseless people of Sandy Springs were about to face suffering and hardship that would scar families for generations while the land itself would become the staging ground for the fall of Atlanta and eventually the Confederacy.
Kimberly Brigance is the director of programs and historic resources at Heritage Sandy Springs, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the historic and cultural identity of Sandy Springs. This article is based on materials in organization’s collection. To contact Brigance, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarke Otten, a resident of Sandy Springs since 1953, is writing a book on the history of Sandy Springs.
An officer in the Roswell Police Department, Michael Hitt serves as historian for the Roswell Preservation Commission and has published several local history books and articles.